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New Collaboration Examines Community Impacts of Green Infrastructure

Northwestern and The Nature Conservancy leverage the University's second NatureNet Fellowship award in joint research project

Mike M. McMahon | February 13, 2019
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Over the past 100 years, rainfall in the Chicago area has doubled due to unprecedented shifts in weather patterns. Such increased rainfall leads to higher rates of flooding as aging sewer and storm water infrastructure struggles—and often fails—to keep up.

“Whether it’s catastrophic flooding like what we saw in 2017 with Hurricane Harvey or the chronic, low-grade flooding we’re seeing in cities like Chicago, these events can often have extreme impacts on people’s mental, physical, and economic wellbeing,” says Vidya Venkataramanan, a postdoctoral fellow in Northwestern’s Department of Anthropology and Center for Water Research.

As part of a new collaborative initiative, Venkataramanan is helping to provide unique insights into the effects of flood mitigation interventions in collaboration with one of the world’s leading conservation organizations, The Nature Conservancy (TNC). Specifically, she is working with TNC conservation specialists to examine the socio-economic and health impacts of natural or “green” infrastructure as an urban water management strategy.

The neighborhood of Chatham on Chicago’s south side has some of the highest rates of flooding in Cook County (Credit: Katherine Nagasawa)

 In contrast with traditional “gray” infrastructure (e.g. conventional gutters, storm sewers, tunnels, pipes, etc.), “green” infrastructure mimics nature by capturing rainwater so it can be reused, temporarily retained, or allowed to seep into the soil, rather than flowing over impervious surfaces into overburdened sewer systems. Examples of green infrastructure include rain gardens, pervious pavement, planted trenches, green roofs, rain barrels, and preserved natural areas.

Supported by TNC’s NatureNet Science Fellows Program, Venkataramanan’s research will focus on two types of green infrastructure: proposed engineered solutions in the neighborhood of Chatham on Chicago’s south side and naturally occurring preserved green space at the Indian Boundary Prairies, a cluster of four protected urban prairies managed by TNC and Northeastern Illinois University in the southern Chicago suburb of Markham.

“Vidya [Venkataramanan]’s work will help us learn from local communities to make sure that we’re having the most significant benefit possible for both nature and communities.” — John Legge, Chicago conservation director at The Nature Conservancy

“TNC is increasingly strategizing on ways to not just connect with people, but to also specifically embrace and include populations who historically have not been represented in discussions about conservation,” says Debra Williams, TNC’s community outreach coordinator at the Indian Boundary Prairies and a collaborator on the research project. “While TNC tends to be more oriented towards ecology and conservation sciences, Vidya’s work is more on the social research side of things. I think this project is an excellent opportunity to see how these two pieces can complement one another.”

TNC’s Chicago conservation director John Legge is also a partner on the project and will serve as one of the mentors helping to direct Venkataramanan’s research. “Part of my role at TNC is to transfer and translate what we’re learning with thought leaders like those at Northwestern to my colleagues in other areas of the country,” says Legge, who has been with TNC for more than 20 years. “Vidya’s work will help us learn from local communities to make sure that we’re having the most significant benefit possible for both nature and communities.”

In Chatham, the City of Chicago, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, and the Center for Neighborhood Technology are planning to install green infrastructure in 40 homes this year in an effort to mitigate flooding frequency and severity in the neighborhood, which are among the highest in all of Cook County. In conjunction with TNC, Venkataramanan plans to use a variety of participatory, ethnographic techniques (e.g. in-depth interviews, focus groups, and photo-elicitation) to gain a deeper understanding of residents’ experiences of flooding as well as to understand the social, health, and economic impacts of the new installations.

In Markham, Venkataramanan’s research will focus on the community’s perceptions of the nearby 370-acre Indian Boundary Prairies.

“We have a limited understanding about how Markham residents who live near the prairies actually perceive this preserved space, nature, and flooding,” says Venkataramanan. “No one has really learned from them in a systematic way. It matters because it will help TNC locally design their outreach programs in an evidence-based manner and help connect residents to the prairies. TNC has always incorporated natural sciences and ecology into their conservation work, and I’m hoping to bring social science into their community outreach efforts.”

Venkataramanan intends to use her research in Chatham and Markham to develop a toolkit to be used around the world in evaluating the human impacts of green infrastructure, flooding, and urban conservation. Her NatureNet Science Fellowship is the second such award Northwestern has received from TNC in the last 12 months. By pairing TNC practitioners with university researchers, the NatureNet Science Fellowship program aims to bridge academic excellence and conservation practice to create a new generation of climate change leaders who combine the rigor of academic science with real-world application. 

“Professor Bill Miller [Chemical and Biological Engineering] and ISEN [the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern], along with Professor Aaron Packman [Civil and Environmental Engineering] and Professor Sera Young [Anthropology and Global Health] encouraged me to apply for this NatureNet opportunity. It’s really great that at Northwestern we have people who are so connected to The Nature Conservancy and value interdisciplinary work,” Venkataramanan says.

Legge stresses that the collaborative opportunity provides great value to TNC as well: “NatureNet is about helping us build relationships in frontline research areas. While TNC has a lot of excellent scientists on staff, they’re spread all over the place and we don’t traditionally have the type of experience—especially the interdisciplinary social science experience—that Vidya is bringing to this endeavor. It’s fostering some great opportunities—not only for TNC, but also for Vidya and Northwestern.”


The Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN) leads the implementation of the alliance with TNC on behalf of the university. ISEN is Northwestern’s university-wide institute to advance global sustainability and energy solutions through transformational research, interdisciplinary education, and public engagement.